Monday, August 20, 2012

Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates

For a bookseller, the greatest pleasure is surely hand-selling a favorite book. Thirteen years after I worked my last retail shift, I still miss a lot of things about bookselling, but that's the one I miss most: that feeling of bringing a new reader to a book you love.

Robin Romm isn't a bookseller, but she deserves to have that feeling: a short piece by her in the Summer issue of Tin House on Alison Lurie--and specifically on The War Between the Tates, her 1974 novel of infidelity, marital collapse, changing mores, and general bad faith on the campus of Corinth (read: Cornell) University in 1969--has introduced me to a writer who, if this book is indicative, seems likely to be a favorite.

Of Lurie, Romm writes:
She has high expectations of her readers; she writes up to them, never down. But the most arresting thing about her is that she’s so wildly observant. Nothing gets past her--no academic theory, no gesture, no political movement, no outfit or mustache or pigtail. And it’s not empathy with which she sifts through all this flotsam. She has another task in mind: to criticize smartly, to comment on the absurdity of our collective endeavors—empathy be damned. The blurb on The War Between the Tates calls Lurie “a baleful comic artist . . . at her most corrosive.”
A novel of faculty-and-spouse life at the turn of the 1970s could easily be a time capsule of the worst sort, exuding whiffs of used bookstore bargain bins and discarded lifestyle choices. Instead, The War Between the Tates astonishes by its percipience, Lurie's ability to suss out, more or less as it was happening, what the generational rupture meant and--more important--how its unequal knocking off of the shackles of convention affected men and women differently. In an election year that has seen the fundamental facts--which one might reasonably presume to have been settled by now--of women's rights brought bizarrely, crudely to the fore again and again, the struggles of Lurie's women to manage the blind demands of the men in their lives and chart a way forward are unexpectedly potent. (A scene where a woman convinces herself of her rapist's good intentions is particularly chilling read in light of the inadvertent revelation of Senate candidate Todd Akin's cruel and benighted views over the weekend.) All of which risks making Lurie seem like merely a political novelist. She's not: her concerns are personal, interpersonal, and social--but when in our century have those been extricable from the political?

I've shared some lines from the book through my Twitter account, but Lurie's prose is best taken in larger chunks. Here's one that demonstrates her ability, on show throughout the book, to spin an elaborate, effective, wry metaphor. It comes early in the novel, when the parents are merely irritated with each other, mostly because their teenage children have become such unmanageable horrors:
"I don't want strangers taking care of The Children," Brian announced, his tone capitalizing the noun like an honorific or divine title--which it was. Though they considered themselves agnostics, during the course of their marriage the Tates had worshiped several gods, of whom the most prominent were The Children. Like most divinities, they were served only intermittently. At certain moments, to express disrespect for The Children would have been blasphemy. At other times they were treated as ordinary beings called Muffy and Jeffo--and sometimes even (under the names Mouse and Pooch) as household pets.

Mouse, Pooch, Muffy and Jeffo had long ago left the house on Jones Creek Road, to be replaced by two disagreeable adolescents; but The Children remained. Public observance of the faith continued, though they were worshiped less frequently and more formally--mainly at religious holidays such as birthdays and Christmas, and during visits to and from relatives. That Brian should call upon them now seemed to Erica unfair. Still, if he could summon the old gods, so could she.

"Darling, strangers take care of The Children all day," she said in a clear soft reasonable voice. "Their teachers at school are strangers, as far as you're concerned," she added, alluding to the fact that Brian had declined to go to any PTA meetings for the past year.
That "clear soft reasonable" voice, with no commas between its adjectives, alluding--perfect, no? Later in the conversation, Lurie describes Brian's voice as
beginning to get tight, as if a heavy rubber band of the sort which propels toy fighter planes were being wound up in his throat.
Erica knows that "if the topic of conversation didn't change soon, he would take off." But, ginned up for a fight, she can't bear to change it.

Lurie's dissection of Brian's tortuously self-deluding path to adultery is similarly attentive to the vagaries of internal score-keeping and goalpost-moving. It's too long to quote in full, but Brian's conclusion, after months of trying to ignore the attentions of a comely undergrad, will give you a sense of the moral backflips at its heart:
Therefore, Brian argued with himself as the soapy waves of false logic sloshed toward the shore, what he really ought to do was to sleep with Wendy himself, as soon as possible. She would see then that he was only a man like other men; her disease would be cured. He owed it to her to provide this cure, even at the cost of deflating his value in her eyes and ruining his moral record. He didn't want to commit adultery, he told himself, but it was his duty. It was a choice between his vanity, his selfish wish for moral consistency, and Wendy's release from a painful obsession.
That self-deception is reminiscent of the writer who has come to mind most often as I've read this novel: Iris Murdoch. Lurie is simultaneously less silly and less deliberately intellectual than Murdoch, while being much funnier and definitely more interested in the actual goings-on of her time. In Murdoch, eros is the driver, and farce its mode; our failure to get beyond our own sense of self and our own desires is what dooms our relationships. With Lurie, that solipsism, much more than passion, is the problem. All Lurie's characters evince it, seeing others almost exclusively through their own needs--though, as Barbara Pym could have told her, the men are the only ones to unquestioningly assume that vantage as their birthright.

And that blindness to the reality of others brings with it a desire to punish, a cruelty, even, that doesn't appear in Murdoch much outside the characters of her explicitly malevolent enchanters. Love in Lurie is not the playful, transformative, incidentally dangerous force that it is for Murdoch, or her muse, Shakespeare; in Lurie's world, love is barely spoken of, falling into it something that only the less than rational would do. The rational, instead, cut and claw and bite. The only way out of the hole is by climbing over someone else. Time and pain are the only transformative powers here.


  1. Lurie's great--only The Last resort was disappointing. What's also enjoyable is that almost all of her books are interconnected (Leonard Zimmern and his family pop up in each one), but they can be read in any order and none of them require any prior knowledge. It just deepens the fun when you re-encounter them.

  2. How have I missed her? I've long known her writing for the NYRB, but I've never had anyone recommend one of her novels to me--but this one, if it's typical of her work, is really amazing. I can't wait to read the rest. (And this also makes me frustrated that her body of work isn't all still in print. Grrrrr.)

  3. She's sometimes wonderful and sometimes not so much... I get a little tired of the Zimmerns popping up all the time, to be honest. But the first chapter of Lurie's "Foreign Affairs" is one of my favorite bits of writing of all time. It's so perfect, despite (or even partly because of) Zimmern popping up in it.

  4. Lovely! Found this post while looking for something else. So glad you enjoyed her--Love and Friendship and Foreign Affairs are also stellar books.
    Robin Romm

  5. So glad to hear it, Robin--thanks again for putting me on to her!